By the time I arrived at MIT to study architecture, Building 20 was already a much-eulogized place of legend. It was often referenced in studios as a place where the occupants could reshape space according to their needs, a place of innovation where the building served as a catalyst for collaboration and experimentation. This was considered desirable, even radical, for budding architects: a place where the walls are not fixed, a place that breathes with dynamism, a building conceived not as composition but as infrastructure for events and interactions.

The reality of Building 20 is that it was poorly constructed, a generic space built quickly in 1943 to house research facilities for weapons and defense systems — essentially a warren of rooms off of corridors with exposed piping and conduit. It lacked the preciousness that would cause one to hesitate before bashing holes through the walls. When my structures class toured the site during the construction of Frank Gehry FAIA’s Stata Center, which replaced Building 20, we marveled at the massive concrete transfer beams, hanging columns, and other structural acrobatics. This had been designed as a highly specific space where the needs of the occupants had been studied, cat­e­gorized, and then fit into a master scheme; where the spectacle of architecture would be the organizing principle; and where the occupants would be part of the spectacle. Visiting the occupied building a few years later, I found it hard to imagine the architecture adapting easily to needs that may not have been considered.

Is contemporary institutional architecture, which often revels in spectacle and refinement, able to provide the catalytic influence so celebrated at Building 20? Or were the scientific breakthroughs achieved at Building 20 simply a result of a time of particular innovation?

I recently visited the Novartis buildings in Cambridge with a scientist friend who conducts research there. Walking the halls of the newest additions to the campus, designed by Toshiko Mori FAIA and Maya Lin, I could see ideas that had bounced about in my MIT architecture studios finding expression. Hallways are wide and populated by niches and nooks; intimate glassed-in rooms allow for private phone calls or small conferences; tables and kitchens provide space for coffee breaks, chance meetings, or larger informal gatherings. The monumental stair that projects from the façade of the Mori building connects many of these informal spaces and provides balconies for contemplation with a view of the courtyard designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh FASLA. An elegant and dramatic atrium off of the main entrance offers a private agora for the Novartis polis.

The design seems to have developed from a notion of urban space, with public ways for chance encounters flanked by more intimate spaces with varying levels of privacy. Yet my scientist friend emphasizes the importance of the lab space. His desk, like most, is 4 feet long and sits in a big open work space with dozens of other desks organized in neat rows. Lab benches and standing desks that are shared within this space are the places where experimentation and collaboration occurs for him.

Would this utilitarian setup — modular, secure, and circumscribed — in another building generate the same discoveries as the scientists at Novartis hope for? Is it the responsibility of architecture to project a sense of creative inquiry? Whether the spaces provided for spontaneous meetings function as intended may be immaterial, as long as they embody the institution’s desire to foster innovation. Maybe ideas hatched in these corridors would not have taken shape in a more constrained and uncomfortable space, ideas that then inform discoveries made in the lab.

My friend talked about his collaboration with a scientist at Harvard Medical School, exploring ways to use a technology developed by one to research the biological systems studied by the other. This collaboration, sanctioned by both organizations, is something that hatched through a chance meeting at a local conference and was incubated in local pubs. Perhaps more so than the buildings that provide a place for research, the dense community of scientists in Cambridge and Boston is crucial to collaborations that can lead to scientific discovery. In that light, the interiorized urbanity of the Novartis buildings is appropriate. A privatized extension of the city, where invited collaborators can come to be among peers, they provide semiprivate spaces for casual interaction and private spaces for serious work. Knocking down walls is probably not neces­sary; multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment are. The funny thing about Building 20 is that the architecture was actually in the way.